Lung Capacity
Poetry (1/6)

Lung Capacity

That you tend/ the family ghosts by never hitting the children/ Speak it, even while you are breaking.

Start with an Ode to the Toddler’s Lung Capacity

To the decibel range, uninhibited diaphragm 
and sense of timing. How she waits til you arrive 
in the tiny tinny bathroom for a diaper change 
to slam the door, pivot, look you in the eye and carve 
you open with sound. Include your sing-song response 
It doesn’t huuurrrt once you finally insist 
on inserting orange foam earplugs before 
entering any small room with her. 
Write another, to not stepping on her voice 
with yours, saying instead Let’s not fight, 
and the ways you both grope for control in the weeks 
after her Oma’s stroke. Add the coldest nights 
of Ottawa winter, a province-wide stay-at-home order, 
the flooded basement, that scheduler at the personal 
support worker company who keeps promising 
We’ll send help next week, and the stacks 
of plastic takeout containers and casserole dishes 
from friends who pause at the bottom 
of the front steps. If there’s anything else I can do. 
If it weren’t for the pandemic I’d— 
Write several poems to the cold wet rug’s 
imprint on the left side of your face,
and the phrases she repeats—Mama cried 
on the bathmat or Oma died or Oma’s dead. 
The 90s Björk she belts while stirring 
oatmeal onto the table, into her lap, 
the library parking lot with the snow 
mountain, the demand that you tickle her 
through her snowsuit again, the endorphins 
wheeling like headless reindeer. 
Write an epic for not knowing, for saying again 
We’re definitely going home, we just don’t know when, 
and the final time her Oma says Bring the dear child here, 
and strokes her granddaughter’s curls with her good arm. 
Tell it all, that you make the grandparents 
and great-grandparents proud. That you tend 
the family ghosts by never hitting the children. 
Speak it, even while you are breaking. 
This heavy glory. This love closing around you like air. 
How you whisperchant her name, call her to you 
when she’s already in your arms, ask the ancestors 
for help when you struggle with loving her. 
Trembling with it, needing to be a bigger container. 
Scared that someday she’ll say 

You made us both too small.

An illustration of a parent and child cuddled up in a takeout container on a kitchen counter littered with takeout containers, illustrated in pale purple, yellow and green with black outlines
‘You made us both too small’ by Greta Riondato, charcoal pastels on polyester film and digital, 2022

On Seeing the Word Trauma Graffitied Onto a Garbage Bin While Still Rehearsing Last Night’s Argument

The trees and I with our long-legged shadows. The play structures limned
in gold. The early light a soft alphabet translating the world.
And the wound I keep picking, busy with my hurt and annoyed at myself
for being annoyed, for my stubborn animal anger, the way I cradle
rage, tend it like a houseplant or a garden upon which survival
depends, just like the addict I am, 17 years sober
but apparently hooked on the stress hormones telling righteousness
to my blood and I know how addiction reshapes the brain,
my neurons’ dendrites permanently elongated
anticipating anger with a bleak elastic glee and I want it to stop,
which is why I’m in a park in early December at an hour past dawn
pacing and talking to myself until whatever subtle or unsubtle
offering arrives—I know that something will happen, it always does—
like when just seconds before I declare out loud
to an indifferent squirrel, Trauma is garbage! an arm
thrusts through an opening from another dimension and a hand scrawls
in aquamarine the word that will make me sit down
on the cold gravel path in front of a grey plastic garbage bin,
the vapour of my astonished breath the only movement
for miles around.
A marbled black background. In the foreground a black outline of a face with short hair covered by hands. You can faintly see the face screaming from behind the hands, and the colour is a wash from purple to yellow
‘At the kitchen table’ by Greta Riondato charcoal pastels on polyester film and digital, 2022

On Day 22 I Learn My Little Brother Has COVID-19

The toddler doesn’t understand when I cry
so we try drawing. When the last crayon 
clatters to the floor, I choose a knife 
and cut open a lemon. I’ve seen the videos
so I try not to laugh as I lick a bright slice 
and offer it to her. She steps close, her breath 
damp on my cheek. Pauses the way she does 
with newness, feeling around inside for 
a Yes/No/Wait. Dips her mouth to the curve 
of my favourite fruit. Her face twists 
and she pauses then taps her fingers together 
to make the sign for More. It becomes 
a game: turn by turn, sitting on the kitchen 
floor watching each other touch tongues 
to yellow flesh. Forty minutes pass. 
God is the cool sour moon we hand back 
and forth, setting teeth into it, just once.

Day 217

Fifty or more, grasping at grass
with their bills, tearing it free
with quick jerks. The curve
of their backs gleam bright
enough to hurt the eyes. Shadows
yawn across the cold
wet earth. There will be a rise
in suicides this winter, I told
a friend last night.
Another five or ten geese
sweep in and the toddler cries, Maw, maw.
More, more. I’ll wash green smears
from her jeans tonight. 
I’m a better parent on sunny days.
The geese puff chests, beat
wings, scold their neighbours. Settle,
graze, repeat. I envy them,
not for flight, but proximity
to one other. The internet gives risk
statistics. Only you can know
what’s right for your family. We share lists
of ways to get through winter. People
talk about the “after times”. I watch 
a short film, The Years of Repair, 
sob into my palms at the kitchen table. 
Hope crouches low to the ground. Wails 
if anything touches it. In two weeks,
the election. In two weeks, a full moon.
The toddler can’t make the “oo” sound yet,
will shout, Meenh, meenh, on our morning
walk, demand that I pick her up, wanting
to get closer to it. That pale orb slipping
down behind the houses. Yesterday the trees
let go a thousand shades of orange, 
butter, lemon, burgundy, casting circles 
of colour along Farquhar Street.
The sweet smell of rot, sun warm
on my scalp. I set down grocery bags
and sat on the curb. Listening
to the tsh, tsh of dropping leaves,
every tender landing the maples 
chanting, death, death, death.

Filed Under: Poetry & Prose

Poetry by

Lisa Baird lives on Attawandaron/Chonnonton/Mississaugas of the New Credit territory (Guelph ON). Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Room Magazine Poetry Contest and longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize.

Illustrations by

Greta Riondato is an Italian multimedia visual artist, sculptor, designer and mother of two. Born and raised in the Veneto region of North Italy, Greta has been immersed in the world of art her entire life.

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